**Editor’s note: This past spring, Kelly McCartney sat down with Patterson Hood to talk about his buddy and former bandmate Jason Isbell. She wanted to dig into Isbell’s time in the Drive-By Truckers, for a long feature that appears in the 2015 issue of No Depression in print. She got some great info for that, but also wound up with an excellent interview about the inner workings of one of roots music’s finest bands. So, since there was no space to include the whole thing in print, we decided to run it online as a bonus feature. The magazine, by the way, is available now for purchase. The interview below, however, is only available here:
The Truckers were, well, trucking right along for several years before Jason [Isbell] joined up. Tell me about that connection, because I’ve read a few different versions. Did you meet him through your dad or Dick Cooper?
We’d just put out Southern Rock Opera and I had probably known him for about a year or so, at that point. We met at a late-night hang at Dick Cooper’s house, out on the lake, back when we were still working on Southern Rock Opera. Dick was roommates with Shonna who was good friends — maybe with benefits or something like that — with Jason who was, at that time, still in college in Memphis. So when I’d be there, Jason would be there, too. He and I just hit it off pretty quickly and friendly. And we saw pretty quickly that we had a chemistry playing together. We’d all be sitting around playing guitars and then was a very easy, natural chemistry there. I flipped over his songs and thought he was great. He liked my songs, etc etc.
Flash forward about a year, and we were doing a house concert — I think it was November 1 or 2, 2001 — at Dick Cooper’s house. Spinmagazine — it was the beginning of the buzz about Southern Rock Opera — sent a writer and photographer to do a piece on us. We didn’t have a show and we wanted him to see us play, so Dick Cooper set up this house concert and Jason, of course, was invited to it. We’d played the very first Americana Music Association thing the night before in Nashville and we drove down to do this thing at Dick’s. There’d been some problems in the band with the third guitar player, at the time — Rob, who played on that record. And, Rob, basically, didn’t come to the show. It was time to play and we were short one of our members and there was, of course, a lot of anger and embarrassment associated with that. We started playing without him and, then, there was Jason sitting there and I knew full-well that Jason knew how to play all those songs. So, I was like, ‘Hey, man. Come jump in.’ So he jumped in and played with us. The next day, we asked him if he wanted to finish the tour with us. The day after that, he left on the road with us and played with us for five years and three albums.
It was an amazing thing. And it also made for a great story. Eric from Spin was like, ‘God! These crazy rednecks! You won’t believe what I saw!’ And then this kid, who looked about 14… this kid sits down and obviously knew every song backwards and forwards. And harmonies and guitar parts. It was awesome. It was a very seamless changeover. There you go. He was in the band.
Everybody’s who’s ever joined our band was, basically, told what time to be there for soundcheck and that was it. It was up to them to know the songs well enough to cover their own ass. We believe in trial by fire because that’s how we live, that’s how we are. Not to sound dramatic about it, but it’s the truth. We all live in different towns, so it kind of has to be that way.
Cooley and I played together for eight years before this band. Some of those rehearsed a whole lot. We do what we do at our best when it’s very instinctual.
What did Jason bring to the Truckers and how did things shift when he left?
He brought a lot to the band. He’s an amazing guitar player and he’s an amazing songwriter. I don’t think he necessarily joined to be a songwriter in the band, but the second day he was in the band, he wrote ‘Decoration Day.’ And within a couple of weeks, he wrote ‘Outfit’ — both of which made the first record that we did with him. In the case of ‘Decoration Day,’ it was the title cut of the record, even. He was immediately part of the fold. He was made a full partner in the band. Hell, we didn’t have anything else to offer. We didn’t have money to pay him. He weren’t making any money. It was like, ‘We’re all in this thing, so let’s do it.’ He was a lot younger than the rest of us. Cooley and I had already, by that time, been playing together for 16 years.
As a little time went on and his place in the band grew and he grew as an artist and got older, I think he out grew his place in the band. He had never really planned on being part of a band. He planned on being a solo artist. That was always his plan. We were a diversion — a very good diversion — because it enabled him to leap-frog over a lot of years of being unknown. He was instantly known because he joined just as the buzz was generating about the Truckers and Southern Rock Opera. He was instantly playing much bigger rooms than he could have played by himself. Within a year, he was earning a paycheck from the band which was something that none of us had ever had in our entire lives until then.
Flash forward a few more years, his wife is the bass player and their marriage starts going south. We all were hard drinkers and hard partiers, but with him, there was a tendency to sometimes get drunk and act really badly, especially when his marriage was falling apart. So there would be times when it would become a lot of drama we all had to live through. We were all cooped up together on a bus, 24 hours a day for months at a time. One member’s crying and another member’s being drunk and belligerent. It got to be pretty unbearable. And I think he started to resent us. I think he started to feel like he could be doing better solo than he was doing as a member of our band. He didn’t want to write two to four songs per album. He wanted to write a whole album, which is understandable. That had always been his plan. I think, in some ways, he would’ve liked to have quit the band, but it’s hard to walk away from a paycheck. At some point, it became necessary for us to push the issue, a little bit, which was a hard thing. It was a hard thing.
He was an irreplaceable part of that era of the band. We did continue as a band, and we have since had other eras. I think we’re in an era, right now, that is the best we’ve ever been. I think we’re in a really, really wonderful spot now. And I think he’s, obviously, in a very wonderful spot. His last record was so fantastic and so rightfully acclaimed. Of course he’s gotten his shit together in his life and he’s grown up to become a very, very fine man that I’m very proud to be friends with. We were all younger and living in a wilder time. We all have kids and families now. Most of our wild abandon is on the stage now. Whereas, used to be, the show was kind of 24 hours a day and we would just take the show to the stage, at some point in the day. [Laughs] And, then, the show would continue off the stage. We aren’t really able to do that anymore, nor would we want to.
With so many comings and goings, what’s been the key to the Truckers’ longevity?
There are several. I can say Brad Morgan’s one of them. He’s been with us for 16 years, so he’s been there through most eras of the band. He was actually there before he was a member. Our original drummer was in several bands and we weren’t making any money or showing any signs of becoming successful, so a lot of times, he wasn’t available and Brad was our guy we’d call. After a while, it was kind of ridiculous. We were playing more shows with Brad than we were with Matt, so maybe Brad needed to be the guy we had in the band. Brad was willing. He’s sort of that guy every band needs that’s the cool head in the fire that is the stable rock we can all count on. If we’re ever getting hot-headed, we can look to him and see if it’s worth it. If he’s mad, then it’s probably worth doing something about. The number one — and maybe only — rule we have as an operating rule is “Don’t piss off Easy B.” Because, if you’re pissing him off, then you’re probably fucking up and it might need to be dealt with. We live by that. At the same time, don’t piss him off.
It’s no secret that you and Cooley didn’t get on so well for a while. How did you each navigate that? And what changed?
By the time we started the Truckers, Cooley and I had outgrown a lot of that. We had a decade of bands before this band. We spent a lot of that time fighting about all kinds of shit, usually stuff not worth fighting about, in retrospect. We’ve both grown up and figured out that we’re better as a team than otherwise.
That’s the other secret… he and I are a really great team. We are opposites in so many of the important ways that make for a strong band relationship as far as if you can co-exist. The best bands are made of people who, seemingly, should not be in a band together somehow moving in the same direction. That makes the most interesting band. The bands where everybody’s in total agreement all the time are usually boring. I’m sure there are exceptions. Our band’s a lot of things, but we’re usually not boring. Even in our darkest history, our lesser records are, hopefully, at least not boring.
Right now, we’ve got a band that gets along unbelievably well, but it’s still made up of five parts that, on paper, could easily not. We all get along, though, because we all love and respect what each other’s contributions are to it, musical and personal. But it’s not because we all are just alike, by any means. It’s the fact that we respect the differences so much.
If you and Cooley ever part, please tell me neither of you will do the “Drive-By Truckers Revisited with Patterson Hood” or whatever…
Yeah. That’s even in the by-laws. We both have to be there for it to be called Drive-By Truckers. I can’t imagine a scenario where I would ever quit, other than Cooley saying it’s time. Even then, I’d be very sad about it. I might even argue about it. He would have to convince me. So far, he’s been willing to continue on. There have been times when he’s thought about it… times when I probably thought about it, too, but not for a long time, for me. We’ve lived through no longer being a new band and we’ve even lived through being an older band to where I feel like we’re coming up on that phase now where we’re the old enough band to where it becomes cool again. Where it’s like, we’resuch an old band, we get a certain elder statesman thing going. I’m counting on that being the next level for us. [Laughs] I’m too old to ever be young again. And I’m not the type that’s gonna dye my hair and pretend otherwise.
This is our 19th year as the Drive-By Truckers, and Cooley and I will turn 30 as a partnership August 1, so if that doesn’t make elder statesmen… And the fact is, I think we’re creating some of our best work right now. I’m extremely proud of English Oceans. We’re finishing work on a live record right now that’s my favorite thing we’ve ever done. I can’t believe how good it’s turned out. It’s a pretty great overview of our entire history, song-wise, with songs from every record we’ve put out. Two of the three nights we played were probably my favorite nights that we played last year, and last year was probably my favorite year of touring we’ve ever had. So we captured something really special.
You guys were ahead of the curve… There haven’t been that many concept records within Americana. What was the inspiration behind doing that?
There was nothing in the world we could’ve done more out-of-fashion or out-of-step with the time than that record. I mean, nothing. Everything about that record, on paper, was an idiotic, terrible idea that should not have worked. Truly.
“On paper” is a theme with you guys. [Laughs]
We’re best when we revel in that and try not to fight it. We’ve always done our best work when we just ran with that. We’ve always done our weakest work whenever we were somehow trying to appease some notion of what we should be as opposed to just being what we are. The records that have worked the least, in my opinion, tend to be the records that probably most would’ve made somebody at a record company happy.
Fortunately, we’re sitting in a position now where we don’t have any problems. I mean, we have our day-to-day lives and life is full of all kinds of turmoil and things you have to deal with. But, as far as the band, the band is great. It’s doing so good. For one time in my life, there’s not a single person in the band that I’m not so overwhelmingly happy with, and that extends to our crew and our management and our ATO record label. How many times do you hear a band say that? Really the only limitations we have now, as a band, are the limits of our own talents and imaginations. And we’re always trying to push those. We’ve gone into making every single record trying to make the greatest record ever made. We’ve never made the greatest record ever made, but it’s all in the trying. We keep trying. We haven’t given that up, that crazy dream of making some just monumentally fantastic record. I think our best records are real good. But we’re still trying to make a much better record than we’ve ever been able to make. I think the live record we’re making now is, by far, the best record we’ve ever made.
The live record to which he refers, It’s Great to Be Alive, recorded over three nights at San Francisco’s Fillmore is due Oct. 30.